Disclaimer: Visit Bruges partly supported this visit. As always, all opinions are my own.
Craft beer. Anyone within the millennial age range or adjacent to it roughly knows the story. An image comes to mind of the typical customer – a white guy tatted up with a beard, black-rimmed glasses, and a story about trying to homebrew that ended in mediocrity and a patient significant other brooding with an “I told you so” look.
The fad has hit such a stride, people are traveling for it, and thankfully, the ranks of the typical customer and provider are diversifying a bit. At the same time, there are those who despise it. Even traveler-favorite, Anthony Bourdain, lamented craft brew aficionados telling Thrillist, “You know, I haven’t made the effort to walk down the street 10 blocks to the microbrewery where they’re making some fucking Mumford and Sons IPA.”
Whether you despite the kind of people craft breweries are bringing to the neighborhood or you celebrate the industry’s ability to reuse otherwise lifeless buildings to inject a bit of life into a neighborhood block covered in weeds, there’s no denying that craft beer plans to stick around for a while.
The exception to this seems to be Belgium where craft beer never stopped being a thing. I’ve seen craft beer throughout the Americas and Europe, and though you can certainly find beers proudly slapping the “craft beer” label to their product, the fact is that Belgian beer is already such a masterful product that they don’t seem to need a fledgling, micro-based industry to cater to those who prefer a bit of complexity in their brew. Belgian beers are quite simply already as craft as they get. No, they don’t usually have an infused jalapeño or some other gimmick you’d try once just for the story, but they have the best of the best when it comes to what people actually want to drink. That’s especially obvious in a city like Bruges.
Belgian Beer in Bruges
If you look for it, you can find craft beer. But the truth is, craft beer can be underwhelming when matched up against the classics. There’s the saison that’s missing a little sweetness or the IPA that’s perfectly enjoyable, but nothing remarkable compared to something you’d find in the Pacific Northwest where hops don’t have to travel far before meeting their brewer.
When you wise up and switch to the classics, the traditional representatives of the nation, it seems impossible to be disappointed if you have anything resembling a moderately discernible palate. The La Trappe Blond is a standard bearer for the style, OMER continues to be the bartender recommendation for a Stronger Golden Ale, and then there’s anything that Brugse Zot or Straffe Hendrik decides to brew.
Tip: Brugse Zot and Staffe Hendrik are brewed at De Halve Maan. They offer a full menu paired with their beer. The Belgian Blonde goes with the shrimp croquette appetizer, the Straffe Hendrik Tripel with the farmhouse chicken, and the heavy Quadrupel – with 11 percent ABV – with the poached peach dessert. Under a blue sky during the July Belgian National Holiday, it was mercifully less touristy as the city center with manageable crowds and still the distinct sound of the Flemish language in the air.
Best of all, you can usually find these beers anywhere you go in Bruges. It’s a stark contrast coming from Germany where bars usually only sell the style of their city alongside maybe one Hefeweizen (if you’re outside of Bavaria) or North America where you generally have to go to a specialty beer bar for Belgian treats. In Belgium, and certainly Bruges, the best beer in the world is regularly available to everyone for a reasonable price.
I understand the curmudgeon attitude toward craft beer. There can be a fair bit of snobbery involved, just as there is in its pretentious cousin, wine, but I truly believe that when you get down to the ethos of craft beer and what craft brewers, in general, are trying to do, it’s a damn good industry. I’m generally thrilled to see the trend sweeping throughout the world, even if the bubble will inevitably pop sooner rather than later.
If you feel generally the same as I do, then you’ll want to plan a visit to Bruges where it appears they mastered craft beer a couple of centuries ago.
Bruges Off The Beaten Path
Honestly, I underestimated how popular Bruges is with tourists. Don’t ask me why. It’s an objectively gorgeous, walkable medieval city. Who wouldn’t want to visit? That means going off the beaten path in Bruges is no easy feat, especially over a summer weekend, but a quick start would be to head to Hoogstraat and follow it east until you cross the canal and it turns into Langstraat. The road continues with a number of artisan shops, restaurants, bars, clothing stores, and coffee shops (like Hermanus noted below). There’s a sense that this is a mini-downtown of sorts away from the busy central market area with the famous Belfry tower. You can follow the road as far as the park along the river with a couple of old windmills set on top of mounds of grass. Tourists still find their way here, as evidenced by the folks charging admission to go into the windmills, but there’s a relaxing ambiance here as locals cycle by on the path along the water.